translators and physicians walked through the World Trade Center
near Boston Harbor to meet their local host families.
by Everett Hayward
name is Tatiana.
call me Tanya. I like to play games and do my lessons with
my friends. Very often I go to the forest with my grannie.
There are many birds, sometimes some animals. I enjoy the
beauty of the forest. My dearest dream is to go to school
and have my mother close to me, at home. I'd like to find
the introductory letter of Tatiana Lepejeva, age 11, 1997
guest of Jan and Mike McTeague
name is Eugenia.
call me Zhenya. I like to draw, listen to music and play
with my pet cat, Fyodor. The thing I like best about school
is math. The quality I like best in people is honesty. My
friends are frank, careful and kind. My hobbies are dolls
and sewing dresses for them. I have no special fears about
your country. I would like to find good friends for our
organization, "Children in Danger."
the introductory letter of Eugenia Sivko, age 11, 1997 guest
of Jan and Mike McTeague
At Chernobyl 13 years ago, the world experienced its worst radiation accident ever. A Boston program reaches out to its youngest victims with medical care and loving friendship.
Linda Ellen Wilson
Justin Hayward (right) pals around outside with his returning
guest from Belarus, Artyom Khodos, also 10.
ON A HOT DAY
IN JUNE 1998, a crowd bearing balloon and flower bouquets
and welcome signs in Russian gathered at the World Trade Center
in Boston, Massachusetts. They were there to welcome 131 children
and their translators and physicians from the Chernobyl region.
The travelers155 in allwere on their final leg of a 24-hour-plus
journey from Kiev, Ukraine, to the United States.
Surging into the center's ballroom overlooking the picturesque
Boston Harbor, they looked exhausted but happy. A few were
ill, many were dehydrated. Moments before, upon arriving at
Boston's Logan International Airport from New York's La Guardia
Airportvia a Delta shuttle arranged by airline employeesthey
had been taken by water taxi to meet their host families from
neighboring Boston communities.
The children, ages nine through 17, were participating in a monthlong local outreach program offered by a growing network from the United States, Ireland and Europe. They came for a break from exposure to radioactive contamination, the deadly legacy of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion on April 26, 1986.
Arriving with only a small satchel and the clothes on their backs, these children would soon forget the dangers that had come to define their lives. Nestled in the loving embrace of a
family, supportive community and new friends, they could relax, have fun and give their immune systems a rest. Just four weeks of fresh air, clean water and wholesome food have been known to decrease radioactive particles in their systems, perhaps adding years to their lives.
Among the greeters were Father Robert J. Bowers, a parish priest in Milton, Massachusetts, and members of a core group of volunteers who founded the Chernobyl Children Project USA, Inc., when they learned of the incalculable toll in death, illness, unemployment and divorce that followed the nuclear blast. Some nine million people, three to four million of them children, were affected in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Over 70 percent of the radiation fell on the Republic of Belarus, exposing the population to radioactivity 90 times greater than that released by the Hiroshima bomb.
Even now, more than a decade later, problems persist. Tragically, the most vulnerable are the region's children, the older ones who were infants and toddlers at the time and those born since the explosion. Even the unborn face uncertain futures.
"I don't think people have any idea how bad it is there," host mother Grace Zmiejko said. "We've heard that everything within a 70-mile radius of Chernobyleverythingis contaminated."
Pervasive throughout the area was the feeling that the world had forgotten the people of Chernobyl, especially the children. But that is changing. On a recent trip to Russia and Belarus, Father Bowers was stopped by a sobbing father who begged him not to forget the children.
"Personally, I found the experience to be profoundly moving," Father
Bowers said, "as the fear and near-desperation of the parents once more refocused who we are and what we
are all about: [to give] hope to God's forgotten children of the Chernobyl region."
Kids Face an Uncertain Future
Though they looked normal, just a little thinner than our own kids, many of the children suffer from thyroid cancer resulting from the blast; a small neck scar from thyroid removal serves as a subtle reminder. Others arrived with ailments of less-defined origin such as cancer, leukemia, arthritis and heart disease.
Health care at home is minimal. Indeed, the situation is
so grim that the effect of the nuclear accident on the young
people, according to one Russian doctor, "has threatened the
very future of our race with extinction."
In response to the ongoing effects of the disaster and true
to its reputation as one of the best in the world, the Boston
medical community has rallied to help. Since the outreach
program's inception in 1995, each child has received free
medical, dental and eye care.
Last summer, according to cardiologist Bart Heller, the program's medical director, Norwood Hospital supported two plastic surgeries and several other hospitals offered free emergency care. During the past two visits, the foreign doctors were invited to observe American medical techniques and procedures. Equally important, ongoing telecommunications enable doctors to confer on the visiting children's progress after returning home and help children too ill to travel.
One medical facility that has extended extraordinary care, especially for
13-year-old Alexei Saponchikov, is The Floating Hospital for
Children at New England Medical Center. Alexei, affectionately
known to his American friends as Alosha, has benefited in
ways he could not have imagined.
An orphan from Belarus suffering from severe arthritis,
Alosha measured just 38 inches and weighed only 30 pounds
upon his 1997 arrival in the United States. Steroid treatment
at home had drastically slowed his teeth and bone growth.
One foot appeared clubbed, and he had other severe joint deformities.
His arms and legs hurt most of the time.
Like the other children, Alosha originally intended to stay only one month, but his physician, pediatrician-in-charge Dr. Jane Schaller, thought
he needed at least eight more months for corrective surgery and rehabilitation. Two days after he turned 13 and enjoyed his first-ever birthday party, he received the welcome news: The Belarus government gave consent for him to stay.
"We couldn't be happier," said Dan Joyce, Alosha's host father. He added that, despite his medical problems, Alosha "sings and smiles all the time." Alosha flashed what Dan calls his "killer smile" when he heard he could stay.
By the time Alosha had foot surgery, teeth restructuring and extensive physical
therapy to work his joints, his visa expired. He returned
home in September 1998 to be evaluated by Russian doctors.
During that time, he renewed his visaset to expire in
August 1999which allowed him to return to the States.
He resides now with the Joyces, with whom he lived during
his 1998 visit. He remains friends with their sons, teenagers
Dan, Jr., and Doug, and eight-year-old Ryan. The Joyces enrolled
Alosha in school and, since adoption is possible, are working
to find him a suitable home.
The idea for a Chernobyl outreach program was first presented by teenagers to a U.S. group exploring youth-ministry projects following an Irish student-exchange program. The original Chernobyl outreach program began in Ireland in 1990.
"Could we reach across the planet and give these kids respite, four weeks of rest, quiet and hospitality?" Father Bowers had asked. "As we talked about it, five [local] parishes said, 'We can do this!'"
Beginning with 10 visitors in 1995, the organization expanded to greater Boston the following year to include 100 children from a Belarus orphanage and about 100 children and doctors in 1997. As word of the program spread, new possibilities opened up, thanks in part to local media coverage.
The 1998 summer visit was the best yet, especially with additional sponsors: a synagogue and a Protestant church, a Catholic high school and several individuals who raised up to $4,000, generally to cover the cost to invite back past visitors. Through the expanding network, frequent visits by key organizers to the Chernobyl region and open discussions among participants for feedback, the goal to reach as many of the three million affected children as possible is quickly becoming a reality. The effort will again be repeated this summer.
In the spring, about five months before the children arrive, informational meetings are held with participating organizations to discuss the program with families interested in hosting children. Families able to meet the requirements for time, energy and the added expense receive an information packet.
Volunteers help raise funds and organize a network of coordinators by geographical
regions throughout metropolitan Boston. Bottle drives, car
washes, raffles and special collections help raise a minimum
of $1,000 per child for airfare and expenses. Coordinators
arrange for everything from easing the language barrier by
providing translators, dictionaries, phrase books and flash
cards to ordering prepared meals, providing transportation
and being in charge of donations. Giving Trees set up in church
lobbies offer gift certificates to area eateries and stores;
donations offset the cost of food, clothing and extras such
as in-line skates, cameras and watches. Father Bowers has
been particularly touched by the personal sacrifices coordinators
make to ensure the children have successful visits.
Meanwhile, across the ocean in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, children well enough to travel are selected by Children in Trouble and Children in Danger, two foundations composed of parents, teachers and physicians. Placements are made once each child receives a Russian physician's consent, and stateside, as soon as the funding and host families are established. Prior to the visit, host families receive personal histories, medical records and photos; introductions are made by mail.
On orientation night, when host families gather to obtain the names of their
incoming children, the atmosphere is tense as families wait
for their names to be called. Jim Moonan, host-family services
coordinator, puts everyone at ease, explaining that becoming
a host family requires nothing more than a sincere willingness
to make the children part of the family. He assures parents
that they do not have to do anything special; the most important
thing is to offer a normal home life.
"You're holding their hand spiritually, physically and in so many ways," he says. "It requires nothing more than love in your heart, patience and trust that things will work out."
of most visits, the first few days were the most difficult
for 13-year-old Katya Malova and eight-year-old Olya Knoovalova.
In July 1997, they were guests of Kelly and Tom Curran and
their five children, ranging in age from 12 to two. Unable
to understand English, the girls stared with blank faces the
first night as the Currans attempted to communicate. A visit
from a translator and occasional telephone assistance helped
overcome initial awkwardness.
family is hosting two boys,
Sergei Byeloschitsky, 15, and Sergei Lebedev, 14, "the
Sergeis." Our mom says now she knows why they say "oh
boy" instead of "oh girl," because the boys can get
a little wild. This project brings hope to the children
of Belarus. It shows them that if they work up to it,
they can come to a better place than what they're used
to. Coming to America is a dream come true to them.
They think America has cures for everything and that
it is a kind of fantasy land. They were very helpful
around the house. They washed the car, carried things
and vacuumed. They were amazed at the choices of food.
When they went to the grocery store, they couldn't believe
that you could buy a whole watermelon or that there
was an entire aisle of cereal.
by Laura Malone, age 12, to the congregation of St.
Mary Church in Chelmsford
did not know each other before arriving in the United States,
Katya and Olya live with their parents in Klintsy, Russia.
Katya's mother is a supervisor in a supermarket, and her father
works in a factory. Olya's mother teaches math, and her father
works in a garage. The girls' parents saved up the small fee
to send them here and were proud their daughters could come.
Olya fit right in and was happy to be here. On the other
hand, Katya felt homesick, a common problem among the visiting
children. She wanted to call her mother, but Kelly encouraged
her to write a letter and send photographs instead. Quiet
and shy, Katya folded everything, even the tissue paper from
gifts. While they kept up with the Curran children most of
the time, Olya occasionally withdrew with stomach pains, cramps
and a high fever. Though there was plenty to dosee the sights,
watch a Red Sox game, join the entire group on a harbor cruisethe
girls most appreciated the simple pleasures: riding bikes,
visiting and shopping. Their favorite place to go was the
"Whenever they wanted to do something fun, it would be to
go to the grocery store," said Kelly. "They couldn't get their
seat belts off fast enough." In Klintsy, the food is rationed
and there is hardly anything on store shelves.
our child was exhausted. We thought he would hop right
in bed. Instead we saw him washing his socks in the
sink. This is what he does in Belarus every night. He
only has one pair of socks. That was when we showed
him the washing machine, which he thought was great.
What we take for granted is amazing to them. They got
a kick out of the garage door, elevator, escalator,
keyboard, automatic doors, vacuums, microwave and microwavable
popcorn. When my mother took us strawberry-picking,
we were thrilled. We love to pick strawberries. They
had serious faces and were quite careful about which
strawberry to pick. You should have seen their faces
receiving the gifts from you. They just love the clothes,
bags, hats, shoes, towels, bathing suits and all the
small gadgets. Sergei B. loved the watch. His shoes
were way too small. His toes were scrunched up. He loves
the sneakers. He was jumping in them because they felt
by Susan Malone, age 11, to the congregation of St.
Mary Church in Chelmsford
The visit fit in with the Currans' philosophy of offering
children diverse opportunities in sports and other activities.
Though they viewed hosting as a big commitment, Kelly reflected
that it meant much more: "It is our way of giving something
back for children less fortunate than ours." Paramount, she
said, was the opportunity for "our children to see through
others' eyes, to experience another culture," a learning experience
never more poignant than on the days her children helped carry
presents, stacked high on two tables, home from church. The
Curran children learned firsthand what it meant to give.
Many surprises were in store for Jan and Mike McTeague and
their 13-year-old son, Josh, of St. Mary Church in Chelmsford.
Their guests in 1997, Tanya Lepejeva and Zhenya Sivko, were
both 11 and going into the seventh grade; each of them had
taken two years of English in school. The first two surprises
were kittens, Boris and Natasha, waiting for the girls when
they first arrived at the McTeague home.
No one expected a third one. But soon, on an errand at the
cobbler's shop, the children heard a faint cry coming from
a bench. They followed the little sound, and there sat another
fluffy kitten, its eyes still closed. How could Jan resist?
The kittens were a blessing since caring for them gave Tanya
and Zhenya a welcome diversion from a world so different from
These two girls from Klintsy, Russia, got along well together
and independently. In no time, they knew the neighborhood
children, rode bikes with them and swam in the neighborhood
pool. Josh showed them around and kept them entertained.
Zhenya, who lives with her mother and sister, appeared in
good health. The prognosis on her medical form was good and
her scar from thyroid removal well hidden. By contrast, Tanya's
guardian grandmother had written on her medical form, "Please!
Help this girl about medicine, or if it's possible, a wheelchairvery
short of money and can't provide Tanya with proper medicines."
Though Tanya's prognosis was only fair because of a metal
prosthesis in her right knee that had permanently straightened
her leg, she walked without help and never mentioned a wheelchair.
Most unexpected was Jan and Mike's decision to invite Tanya
and her grandmother back. Though arrangements can be made
for returning children through the program, plane fare and
travel expenses normally covered by the program and sponsoring
organization are not included. This policy allows visitation
for the optimal number of needy children. Despite the expense,
numerous families invite children back and, in some cases,
families adopt the children.
During the winter, Jan and Mike extended their invitation
by telephone to Tanya and her grandmother, Evgeniya Trushkina,
better known as Babushka Zhenya, who had recently retired
from the textile industry.
During the visit, Babushka Zhenya regaled the McTeagues
with her sewing skill and excellent borscht and plunged into
sightseeing, shopping and gardening with zeal. At amusement
parks Tanya rode anything that moved, while 70-year-old Babushka
Zhenya sailed on roller coasters and giant swings and zinged
down the water slide as fast as any child. Indeed, for the
McTeagues and others who enjoyed a second visit, their guests
had already become "one of the family," forming a bond stronger
than anyone imagined.
Can Break Open Love'
kaleidoscope of the month's events whirled in everyone's heads
as the group assembled one last time for a farewell dinner.
The most difficult time had come, the time to say good-bye.
Mary Church parishioner Jan McTeague says good-bye to her
guest, Tatiana Lepejeva from Klintsy, Russia.
by Linda Wilson
as Father Bowers, with help from a Russian interpreter, addressed
the crowd. "We have had the privilege of extending our hands
and hearts to our good friends from Belarus and Russia. Thank
you for filling our lives with a unique and powerful insightthat
if we make sacrifices, give of ourselves, share the gifts
God has given us and look beyond our boundaries, ideologies
and fears, we can break open love, unconditional love."
Across the hushed room no one had a dry eye. The organizers,
coordinators, families and childrenall who contributed so
much to make the visit a successwere sad to part company.
The void would be difficult to fill.
"There aren't too many opportunities to make a difference
in someone's life," reflects host mother Susan Hayward. "You
can do it for groups with contributions to this or that fund.
But this is differentthis is changing someone's heart."
Translator Anna Bobova sums it up best: "American society
is a society of winners. What our culture has lost is to be
a people who strive for something better. I guess that was
the fundamental key to our whole program: to give hope to
these people. We may have succeeded very well."
For more information about the Chernobyl outreach
programs, please contact: Chernobyl Children Project USA,
Inc., 175 Derby Street, Suite 22, Hingham, MA 02043. Phone
Ellen Wilson is a free-lance writer from Westford, Massachusetts.
Married and the mother of two teenagers, she writes human-interest
and educational articles for newspapers and magazines.